Marking the directorial debut of Tom Moran – whose Amazon thriller series The Devil’s Hour picked up an International Emmy nomination for Best Drama this week – Romanesco is a wonderfully mind-boggling piece of philosophical cinema. It finds a young woman trapped in an infinite dream with no means of escape. The people around her appear to be on a loop, the scenarios inside the dream are constantly repeating themselves, and the hard boiled egg she’s trying to eat confounds her expectations every time it’s peeled. Inside this discombobulating chaos, however, is a large existential question, and despite the sizeable array of meta-elements Moran’s direction is expertly precise and the story unfurls in a way that is immensely pleasurable to follow. DN is delighted to premiere Romanesco online, alongside an illuminating conversation with Moran about its swift yet immensely fruitful production and seeing how audiences worldwide unpack its many mysteries.
I’m curious to know how you arrived at this delightfully discombobulating meta-fictional concept.
The concept began as a sort of philosophical joke. I wrote a short story in which the main character picked up a book and started reading the same short story we were reading, which became an infinite fractal of repeating prose, peppered with constant nods to the ever-repeating pattern of human existence, reproduction, and rebirth. I like a challenge and so, for my directorial debut, I wondered if it would be possible to apply the same mind-boggling logic to a piece of cinema, a self-referential spiral of a film, blending theme and structure to say something deep about the nature of human existence. And to pull off some mad stuff with boiled eggs.
Romanesco has such a striking pastel look to it, who did you work with to pull off that ultra-stylised aesthetic?
Once I’d adapted the short story into a script, I started assembling the team to make it happen. I knew I needed a dynamic production designer who could bring to life the ethereal sense of unreality I had in mind, so my first port of call was Barnaby Ferris, who I’d met on The Devil’s Hour. Barny was amazing from start to finish, working alongside our fantastic Director of Photography, Angela Neil, to achieve a look and feel as weird and wonderful as the story itself.
I wondered if it would be possible to apply the same mind-boggling logic to a piece of cinema.
Also key was bringing on board Nicki Ballantyne as producer. Nicki called in many favours to assemble a fantastic crew, a crew who worked on a voluntary basis, generously giving up a weekend to help out. Most of them were coming to us at the end of one busy working week and the beginning of another. It was a real labour of love for everyone involved.
With your characters, you have one that’s grounded in reality and the other is part of this fantastical world. How did you look to cast those roles?
The role of the waitress was written specifically for my good friend Lily Ballantyne, who just has a natural sense of comic timing and absurdist humour. The character of Mary, in contrast, needed to feel like the only real thing in this fantastical story world. I had been working with Rhiannon Harper-Rafferty on the first season of The Devil’s Hour, and she’s one of those performers who can balance screen presence and authenticity. Plus, I enjoy twisting her mind in knots with time loops and causal paradoxes, so this seemed like a good fit.
You mentioned earlier that Romanesco was shot over a weekend, was it a pain-free process?
We shot the whole film over two days in a new space, with many crew members stepping up and challenging themselves on the next rung of the ladder. Like most short films, there was no luxury of pick-ups or reshoots. The pressure was on, but there wasn’t a single crew member who wasn’t on their A-game. We made the days. We shot everything we needed and more.
And what was it like assembling everything you had in post? Who did you work with on the VFX elements?
The guys at Space did a great job with the visual effects, including some clever trickery with an infinite mobile phone for the film’s conclusion. We also had incredible support from Bang Post Production and Picture Shop. There are so many people to thank, all of whom bent over backwards to make Romanesco happen.
It’s a complex narrative but it’s shot in such a way that you never feel lost or confused about what is happening. What equipment did you use that allowed you to pull that off?
Although everything takes place in a single room, it was a 360-degree set with removable walls and a sliding ceiling. We shot with a Sony Venice camera and Technovision anamorphics to help achieve the warmer, more dreamlike quality we were aiming for. We had a dolly and short track to push in on the wide shot of Mary at the start, a circular track to facilitate Mary’s panning singles, and a scissor lift to achieve the high and wide angle on the whole café.
The pressure was on, but there wasn’t a single crew member who wasn’t on their A-game.
On top of the usual demands, the film involved some practical prop magic (those nested eggs), video overlays for match cuts, top shots, party streamer vomit, green screen, lightning-quick costume changes and eight supporting artists. So there was a lot going on.
How long have been working on Romanesco for?
We started prep in May last year, before filming over the last weekend in September. We were in post for around six months after that and in April this year we were finally able to show off everyone’s hard work at a cast and crew screening in London.
Who are your influences artistically? We were reminded of Michel Gondry’s music videos for Bachelorette and Let Forever Be when watching.
I always find it a bit difficult to talk about artistic influences, as I have quite an eclectic taste and it can be hard to pinpoint a source of inspiration. In the case of this project, I think I might have been channelling a bit of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and a little Wes Anderson, but ultimately it was whatever worked for the story, which was itself inspired more by mathematics than cinema.
In general, as a storyteller, I like to mess about with time in weird and wonderful ways, so I could cite a thousand influences from Christopher Nolan to H.G. Wells to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which still might be the best depiction of time travel in any novel I’ve read.
What can you tell us about any upcoming projects you’re working on presently?
In terms of current projects, we’re in post-production for Season Two of The Devil’s Hour and I’m working on the scripts for season three, which starts filming next year. As for what comes next, I have a few things up my sleeve, but they will have to remain a secret for now.